Citing a lack of evidence, the Buncombe County Board of Elections voted 2-1 in a tense meeting this afternoon to dismiss complaints by the Buncombe County Republican Party that election law was violated when James Taylor concert tickets were given away at three polling locations.
Board Chair Jones Byrd said the Republicans failed to find evidence that vote-buying took place, particularly in regard to finding a witness who could testify first-hand.
“If you give out tickets and you could have better judgment about where you did it, that’s not a crime,” Byrd said. “This was the time to get them [witnesses] in here. Nobody got them in here. The dearth of any sort of proof to substantiate what the complaint is about is surprising, but it is what it is. I really don’t see anything that supports pursuit of the complaint.”
Republican activists and party members urged the board to investigate the complaints, asserting that private citizens shouldn’t have to do so.
“There certainly does seem to be evidence of the appearance of irregularities — unfortunately, we can’t prove it,” Buncombe GOP Secretary George Keller acknowledged. But Steve Duncan, chair of the GOP’s 11th Congressional District executive committee, called on the board to use the resources of the law.
“I would ask the board to refer these complaints to the appropriate governmental agencies that are empowered and have the resources and the staff to investigate to determine if there was a conspiracy to reward individuals with tickets for their vote,” Duncan said. “Almost 1,200 people voting at those locations at those particular times [when the tickets were handed out]. I don’t see that we, as individual citizens, can work our way through 1,178 voters.”
He added that an investigation could also go through documents and e-mails to find if “there was intent to use these tickets to reward a vote for Obama. We don’t have that capacity, this board doesn’t have that capacity. So I’d ask that you refer it to the state board and any bodies, such as the [State Bureau of Investigation].”
Mark Delk, who brought the complaint forward in the first place, sounded a similar note, stating that “what concerns me here is that the duty to investigate has been foisted on the citizens, who are ill-equipped to investigate. There is certainly a reasonable suspicion that something was wrong here. When someone puts something of value in a voter’s hand before they go into the booth, that doesn’t smell very good.”
Board member Robert Vanwagner, the only Republican on the three-person panel, made a motion to refer the complaints to the SBI and other investigative bodies.
“The way it was done drew the question marks. Whether it was correct or incorrect, it’s the mere fact that tickets were given out at voting locations, during the process,” he said. “When [Republican Vice Presidential nominee] Sarah Palin came to town, they had to come to McCain headquarters to get the tickets, to make sure nothing could be done.”
But his motion failed for lack of a second.
Republican activist Chad Nesbitt showed the board a report from WLOS TV featuring an Obama volunteer talked about giving out the tickets. But Byrd noted that the woman had said that the tickets were being given to any voter and that the statement wasn’t the same as a witness under oath. “There’s absolutely nothing in that video to indicate that there’s a quid pro quo,” he said. “This is the third meeting we’ve had on this. It’s a matter of public record who’s voted at those locations and that information’s been available since Saturday. This has been going for a week and not one person has been produced that has any first-hand knowledge.”
Nesbitt also mentioned that the Republican Women’s Club had faced complaints for giving out baked goods near polling places 12 years ago, and that the board had ruled against their activities.
“When there was a complaint against the Carolina Stompers, they sent an investigator all the way from Raleigh to meet with us,” Nesbitt said, referencing a local conservative activist group he heads. “I don’t understand why this board can’t drive down to Merrimon Avenue and do an investigation.”
When Byrd made a motion to dismiss the complaint, it was seconded and supported by Lucy Smith the third board member. “The thing that bothers me is that it’s being said the people giving out the tickets were buying votes,” she said. “Just because someone gives you something doesn’t mean you’re going to vote that way. I get fliers all the time before I walk into a voting booth and vote the way I want to.”
GOP Chair Tim Johnson criticized Byrd’s decision.
“An investigation would say ‘yea’ or ‘nay,’ but to say that it doesn’t even deserve an investigation, that’s telling me that any time we have a complaint, we have to walk in here with our witnesses or we don’t have merit,” he said.
“I’m sorry you feel that way,” Byrd replied. Johnson later brought up a similar complaint, saying that “perception is reality.”
“We intentionally didn’t give out Sarah Palin tickets [at polling places] because we didn’t want that perception out there. That’s the part that’s more hurtful from my vantage point — it’s like our perception isn’t even valid,” he said. “Those individuals might have perceived that getting a ticket meant that they had to act a certain way once they got into the polling booth. That’s our complaint.”
Byrd shot back: “We’re not here to validate taste.” Johnson countered: “Don’t belittle me by saying that. It is my perception, I’m representing the Republican Party and that’s what we see, at the end of the day. Don’t try to talk down to me about my perception. We have a responsibility to voice our concerns.”
“When I say feeling I’m talking about the same thing,” Byrd said. “We’re not here to determine whether someone’s choice of location or pattern of campaigning is good or bad in a perceptive way. We’re here to determine if the law was violated and we haven’t seen any evidence that it has.”
After the meeting, Johnson and Delk said that the GOP would be meeting soon to consider their next course of action.
— David Forbes, staff writer